Scientific exegesis of the Quran (Arabic: التفسير العلمي) is a trend in Quranic exegesis. which tries to find ties between the Quran and the findings of science. This exegetical trend was developed by Egyptian scholars of the Quran. Tafsir-i Nimuna is among Shiite commentaries which lay emphasis on this type of tafsir.
Scientific exegesis is a fruit of modern religious thought in the contemporary world. Tantawi's Tafsir al-Jawahir is the only complete scientific commentary of the Quran. Other commentaries usually do not limit themselves to the scientific approach, but employ it when suitable. There are also monographs that provide scientific commentaries of specific verses of the Quran.
In scientific exegesis, the commentator tries to find ties between the verses of the Quran and the findings of science. This exegetical trend has had its proponents and opponents, the earliest of whom were al-Ghazali (d. 505/1111) and Abu l-Qasim al-Shatibi (590/1194) respectively. Although these two scholars did not compose scientific commentaries of the Quran, they discussed in their works whether one can use in Quranic exegesis the sciences that did not exist at the time of the Quran’s revelation. Al-Ghazali— and following him, al-Zarkashi (d. 794/1392) and al-Suyuti (911/1505)—supported using such sciences. Fakhr al-Din al-Razi's al-Tafsir al-kabir was regarded as an instance of classical commentaries that employed contemporary scientific findings.
Al-Shatibi was the first opponent of scientific exegesis, and later commentators, such as Amin Khuli, followed him in opposing scientific exegesis albeit in a different way. Khuli was the first scholar in the contemporary times who put forward a definition of scientific exegesis, and later scholars used his definition with some modifications.
In the view of its opponents, scientific exegesis does not consider the Quran a main source of truth, and thus must be rejected. The proponents of scientific exegesis, on the other hand, emphasize the scientific aspect of the Quran’s miraculousness and the fact that the Quran is a book for all times and places.
In the modern times, due to the vast progress and success of modern science, there appeared such hegemony for modern science that being scientific was regarded as equal to being real. The Muslim world also was to a great extent daunted by this hegemony. Many Muslim thinkers believed that they had to make Islamic beliefs and teachings understandable and acceptable by scientific criteria. This attitude can be found in the pioneers of religious reform, including Sayyid Jamal al-Din Asadabadi and Sayyid Ahmad Khan. Al-Tantawi, whose Tafsir al-jawahir is considered unrivalled in the field of scientific exegesis, maintained that the humiliation and defeat of Muslims was because of their remoteness from modern science. He regarded his commentary an endeavor to bring science to the houses of Muslims.
Thus, the popularity of scientific exegesis was a result of Muslim intellectuals' concern in this period to show the ties between the Quran and modern science, and it has been on the decline as a result of the decline of the confidence in science and the emergence of new issues such as freedom.
Instances of Scientific Commentary
Scientific exegesis of the Quran is a result of reform in religious thought among Muslims in modern times. Tafsir al-jawahir by Tantawi is the only complete scientific commentary of the Quran. Many other commentaries written after Tantawi’s work were clearly under its influence. There have also been many monographs that provide scientific exegesis of certain verses of the Quran. The works by Iranian authors such as Mahdi Bazargan, Paknejad, Nasir Makarim Shirazi, and Biazar Shirazi, are to be regarded as instances of this type of exegesis.
Some classical commentators also showed a concern for illustrating the adaptability of the Quran with the scientific findings of their time such as Fakhr al-Din al-Razi in his al-Tafsir al-kabir. Therefore, using science in Quranic exegesis is not restricted to modern times. However, one may claim that it was in the modern times that scientific exegesis formed a distinct and independent genre of Quranic exegesis.
Among major controversies over scientific exegesis is its validity and necessity. These controversies have revolved around epistemological and linguistic considerations, hermeneutics, and the consequences of this type of exegesis. There is no disagreement, of course, over the harmony between the Quran and the reality but over the extent to which modern science reflects the reality and as a result over the extent to which it can be used in understanding the verses of the Quran.
Al-Ghazali is considered the first scholar who supported scientific exegesis. In his view, the Quran contains all human knowledge, including empirical science. Al-Ghazali adduces a number of hadiths to support his claim, such as the following hadith narrated by Ibn Mas'ud: "He who seeks the knowledge of the early and late scholars, let him reflect on the Quran". Al-Ghazali's evidence and arguments are quoted by al-Zarkashi in his discussion of the sciences related to the Quran.
Al-Suyuti supported scientific exegesis by adducing the following verses: "We have neglected nothing in the Book" and "We have sent down the Book to you as a clarification of all things"; he also mentions some hadiths in this regard.
Against this group, another group of scholars, including Sayyid Qutb, have argued that the Quran reveals doubtless eternal truths but modern science is limited to human empirical capabilities and does not claim that its findings are absolutely true and unchangeable. Therefore, it is false to try to read scientific findings into the Quran. It is noteworthy that this criticism presupposes that the exegesis of the Quran is the same as the Quran itself.
Scientific exegesis has been criticized from another perspective. Al-Shatibi, the most prominent classical scholar who is considered a major opponent of scientific exegesis, maintained that in Quranic exegesis, the understanding of the original audience of the Quran is the criterion of correct understanding. And since the original audience of the Quran did not understand scientific materials from the Quran, one cannot claim that the Quran contains scientific findings.
Some other opponents of scientific exegesis have stated that this type of exegesis presupposes that the Quran seeks to teach science, whereas the Quran is not a scientific book and does not have such an aim; rather, the Quran is a book of guidance and edification.
Another group of opponents have mentioned that when the Quran speaks about creation and scientific realities, it seeks to call our attention to the fact that the natural world has a wise creator and director; therefore, one should not limit one's focus to this preliminary step and fail to reach the destination to which the step is supposed to lead.
The proponents of scientific exegesis, however, agree that the Quran is a book of guidance but reject the idea that scientific exegesis is unnecessary or against the intended goal of the Quran.
Scientific exegesis has been criticized based on linguistic grounds. According to this criticism, the functions and characteristics of language is different in each area of human life. The language that the Quran has used to describe creation is the ordinary language of the people of its time, full of allegories and metaphors and significantly different form the language of science. As a result of this discontinuity between the Quranic language and scientific language, scientific exegesis of the Quran is impossible, and the Quran is immune to changes in science; however, on the other hand, scientific findings are not able to support Quranic teachings either.
Outcomes of Scientific Exegesis
The opponents and proponents have paid attention to the positive and negative outcomes of scientific exegesis. The proponents have argued that showing the scientific aspect of the Quran’s miraculous nature is a fruit of scientific exegesis. They maintain that modern people, especially non-Arabs, are not usually able to discern the literary aspect of the Quran’s miraculousness. Therefore, scientific exegesis is necessary in order to demonstrate that the Quran is a miracle from God and thus pave the way for the seekers of truth to embrace Islam. This argument has been challenged by the opponents, who deny this necessity and claim that there are other ways through which people can discern that the Quran is the word of God.
The opponents of scientific exegesis have pointed to the negative consequences of this type of tafsir: scientific findings are not reliable; things that were once considered established scientific facts were later shown to be false, and if the belief in the Quran is tied to such scientific findings, the Quran will be discarded when those findings become obsolete. An evident example of this consequence is the commentary of Tantawi, which, although for some time very popular, soon became obsolete.
In order to prevent the negative consequences of scientific exegesis, proponents of scientific exegesis have emphasized rules such as the primacy of the literal meaning and have criticized those who violate them. However, some proponents have argued that limiting oneself to the literal meaning of the verses prevents one from reaching the depth of Quranic teachings. Another proposed rule is to rely only on established scientific facts and not on scientific theories or hypotheses.
Some scholars have spoken of four cases of conflict in the relation between scientific findings and Quranic verses:
- (1) a conflict between an established scientific fact and a clear Quranic verse which may not have any other meanings.
- (2) a conflict between an established scientific fact and a Quranic verse that has a likely meaning but may have other meanings as well
- (3) a conflict between a scientific theory and a clear Quranic verse that may not have any other meanings, and
- (4) a conflict between a scientific theory and a Quranic verse that has a likely meaning but may have other meanings as well.
These scholars suggest that the commentator must avoid interpreting the verse in the first case, suggest a meaning that is not in conflict with science in the second case, and prefer the likely meaning of the verse in the third and fourth cases.
Setting rules, however, has not proven to be the solution to the problems in scientific exegesis, as the majority of those who have engaged in this type of exegesis have not been adequately familiar with either modern science or the discipline of tafsir and thus their works usually suffer from weaknesses in either aspects.
- The material for this article is mainly taken from تفسیر علمی in Farsi WikiShia.